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Donkey Goes Dry : Tourism Still a Victim of Mexico Quake

October 20, 1985|DAN WILLIAMS | Times Staff Writer

MEXICO CITY — The amount that Francis, the beer-guzzling donkey, gets to drink these days pretty much reflects the state of tourism in and around Mexico City during the past month.

"Before the earthquake, he was performing all the time," said Lucio Oliva, owner of the Calendario Azteca souvenir shop, where Francis' tippling helps lure curious customers.

"But since then, maybe one or two buses stop here a day, where eight or nine came before. Our business is way off." As a result, Francis is getting less of his favorite beverage.

Fewer Tourists in City

Since the Sept. 19 temblor, a sharp drop in the number of tourists has been evident throughout Mexico City. Taxi stands are full of idle cabs, souvenir shops are empty of customers, and business in restaurants that tourists frequent has declined.

Mexican tourist authorities are battling the decline with a big public relations push.

Television commercials for Mexican tourism recently returned to the air in the United States. Newspaper ads north of the border proclaim that many major hotels here are open and offering their usual full range of comforts and entertainment. Groups of government and hotel officials and travel agents are preparing to barnstorm the United States, Europe and Latin America to build up business for the coming winter season.

The stakes are high. Tourism is Mexico's second-largest earner of foreign exchange after petroleum, last year bringing in more than $2 billion from abroad.

Thousands of people are employed as guides, bellboys, maids, waiters, drivers, curio salesman and in other tourist-dependent jobs. About 3,000 hotel workers are estimated to have lost their jobs just from the destruction of several Mexico City hotels during the quake.

Hotel business is reportedly off not only in Mexico City but also in coastal resorts that were not affected by the earthquake. "It's not fair," one government tourism official said. "The image of Mexico is now of fallen hotels and, really, that's not what it's like."

The government's strategy for the moment seems to be to accentuate the positive.

"Yes, there was a dip in traffic to Mexico," Guillermo Grimm, undersecretary of tourism, said. "But tourism is coming back rapidly."

Grimm noted that roads and airports were not affected by the quake and that international telephone communication is slowly being restored.

Conventions Rescheduling

He said that many conventions that were postponed are being rescheduled and that tourist revenue this year will fall only slightly below last year's total. "People are returning and seeing that the restaurants are functioning, the sights are still the same."

But, sometimes, the effort to paint a rosy picture of the tourist scene results in information that is less than credible.

One high government functionary told a reporter that no guests had died in the Continental Hotel, where the top few floors of two wings collapsed, and that the hotel probably could be repaired. But at the Continental, a spokesman said that 10 guests had died and that the hotel would be demolished.

In any case, the official optimism is not matched on the street, where workers in all parts of the tourist industry are bemoaning the slowdown.

'We Are the Forgotten'

"We are the forgotten," said Mario Perez, a chauffeur-guide for tourists. "We had problems before with falling tourism, but this is likely to finish us off."

Perez' post is at the Alameda Hotel, which will be closed for at least several weeks undergoing repairs. Perez' drivers union has given him permission to go to other stands to catch business, but he says that would be more trouble than it is worth.

"Even at the hotels that are open, tourist business is slow. If newcomers barge in, then fights break out. It's resented," he said.

For the moment, donations of food from relatives are helping Perez get through the slowdown.

'It's No One's Fault'

Nearby, at the Casart curio shop, Maria Elena Lopez estimated that about 100 tourists entered her store each day before the earthquake. "Now, maybe five," she lamented. "It's no one's fault. You can't expect tourists to come and enjoy themselves when there's so much destruction."

Out at the Teotihuacan pyramids, which were built nearly 2,000 years ago, souvenir salesmen avidly converged this week on anyone who gave the appearance of sightseeing. On weekdays before the earthquake, they estimated, seven or eight tourist buses arrived at Teotihuacan. Now, there are perhaps two a day.

"Really, people should not be afraid," said Alberto Hernandez, who was selling figurines made of black obsidian. "Earthquakes do not happen every day."

Hernandez said that most visitors to the pyramids these days seem to come from Europe or Japan, with few coming from North America. Before the earthquake, he said, North Americans predominated.

Dry Day for Donkey

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